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Don't believe everything you see in The Last of Us 2 trailer: Naughty Dog's stories are never that simple

(Image credit: Sony)
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(Image credit: Sony)

It's time: here's how to pre-order The Last of Us 2

After years of speculation about ghosts, mothers, and cordyceps cures, The Last of Us 2 release date trailer has finally given us a decent idea of the game's central story… or has it? While the trailer sets the stage for a fairly standard revenge western tale – one in which Ellie takes on a vicious cult after they seemingly kill her love interest, Dina – we know that Naughty Dog's tales are never that straightforward in practice. 

This is a studio best known for taking classic storytelling tropes and turning them on their head, after all, while creative director Neil Druckmann has even admitted to deliberately throwing deceptive edits into previous trailers for The Last of Us and Uncharted 4, Russo Brothers style, to mislead fans onto false trails and preserve the surprise factor of the final product. Knowing that, we can easily identify specific moments in which the latest Last of Us 2 trailer might be pulling off some of those misdirects, starting with the most obvious of the lot.

"I have to finish it"

(Image credit: Sony)

From the moment we saw Ellie wearing Dina's bracelet in the E3 2018 trailer, Naughty Dog seemed to be implying that the character's quest for vengeance is fuelled entirely by her paramour's death at the hands of the game's new antagonists, the Seraphites. 

Indeed, in the latest footage, Ellie is witnessed entering an eerie looking house after being separated from Dina, following a trail of blood into a basement, and finding… something before being tackled to the ground, with the camera turning to black as a gunshot is heard, followed by screams of protest. The implications are obvious. Frankly, I think they're way too obvious to be anything close to the truth.

The fade to black as a means of implying off-screen death is one of the most cliched storytelling devices in cinematic history, and I think Naughty Dog is only too aware of that. I'm also going to go out on a limb for Druckmann and his writing team here, and suggest that they also know better than to kill off another gay character (following Riley in the 2014 Left Behind DLC) in the first act of their sequel as a catalyst to ingite the hero's journey (otherwise known as "Fridging").

(Image credit: Sony)

We also know that Ellie isn't Joel. While Naughty Dog has called The Last of Us 2 a game about "hatred", she isn't the sort of character to jump headfirst into a suicide mission just to get the last say over her friend's killers. A more plausible scenario, for instance, is if Dina is tortured (something that we know the Seraphites are more than capable of) and kidnapped, perhaps as a former runaway of the cult itself, since even the smallest chance that she's still alive and out there is all Ellie would need to begin her blood-soaked odyssey. 

In a post on the PS Blog, Druckmann writes of wanting to tell "a nuanced story that deals with the core question: how far would you go to exact justice against the people that hurt the ones you love?". This does correlate with the idea of Ellie committing mass murder to avenge Dina, but the vagaries of Druckmann's words speak volumes. Which brings us to Joel…

"You think I'd let you do this on your own?"

From the multiple shots of horses galloping against the backdrop of snow-peaked mountains, to even the way in which the editing invokes a event-making Rockstar trailer, the revenge western theme is so heavy in The Last of Us 2 footage that it's hard not to wonder whether Naughty Dog is trying to tell us something. 

(Image credit: Sony)

"I trust Naughty Dog enough to not trust a thing it says or does until launch day"

This is a studio that is famed for its cineliteracy, after all, and it wouldn't be leaning hard into a specific genre for stylistic reasons alone, allowing us to hypothesize the direction in which the story is headed from these deliberate thematic choices. 

Despite its namesake, the revenge western is never just about revenge, but redemption through retribution; often following a protagonist's arc of self-improvement which subsequently allows us to empathise with them even as they play judge, jury, and executioner. 

Yet though Ellie certainly has areas in which she can grow as a person, she's not really a character in need of a redemption arc – but what about Joel? This is a man who essentially sentenced the entire human race to extinction and, by the looks of his weathered appearance at the end of the trailer, has been punishing himself for it ever since. 

Joel's decision to support Ellie in her mission is potentially the beginning of that atonement story, culminating with him finally revealing the truth about that day at the Firefly base (I'm pretty certain Ellie still doesn't know about this, otherwise she wouldn't be so willing to put her life at risk). 

(Image credit: Sony)

Again, the moors of the invoked revenge western genre provide potential clues for how this will play out, as these redemption stories often climax with a sacrificial death for the vindicated hero. Naughty Dog has gotten us so focused on Ellie and the supposed murder of Dina for a reason, and I think that reason is to distract us from a much more impactful fatality. Hell, Druckmann has demonstrated a fondness for non-linear storytelling with Uncharted 2 before; that gunshot victim in the basement may even be Joel himself.  

To be clear, I refuse to believe anything I see from The Last of Us 2 until the game is in my PS4 and beaming into my own eyes. In the same way that Uncharted 4's trailers heavily telegraphed Nathan Drake's death to the point of disingenuity, the consistent focus on Dina is enough to make me question every piece of promotional material as potential smoke and mirrors. 

Of course, this is Druckmann's first turn as creative director without his partner-in-crime Bruce Straley, so there's certainly room for slip ups this time around. But, given the prestige of the studio, and the thought and care into which it crafts its stories, I trust Naughty Dog enough to not trust a thing it says or does until launch day. 

For more, check out the biggest new games of 2019 still on the way, or watch our Release Radar video below for a guide to everything else out this week.